Dongguan, China, produces a vast amount of the toys that will end up under Christmas trees around the world. Or it did, until all the factories there started to close because of the global economy….. leaving thousands of workers out of work and out of luck….
At about six o’clock Thursday evening, around what used to be quitting time for the day shift at the He Jun toy factory in Dongguan, China, 40-year-old Wei Dong Li made his way to the factory’s front entrance, his three-year-old son Qian Jie tugging at his sleeve. The factory is now closed; a few security guards stand inside the locked gate. Posted each evening at the front entrance is a sheaf of documents: the latest rulings from a local court on compensation claims filed by many of He Jun’s 4,000 workers, Wei included. “They process a few of them a day, so I come back every other day to check and see if my case is on the list,” Wei says. He has no luck again. “I’ll just wait some more,” he says. “I have nothing else to do at this point.”
By Bill Powell
Dongguan, along with a handful of similar, nearby towns, is the real Santa’s factory at the North Pole. A sprawling, charmless city of 7.5 million that sits 80 km southeast of Guangzhou, the provincial capital of Guangdong in southern China, Dongguan produces a vast amount of the toys that will end up under Christmas trees around the world. Toys were one of the critical, low-wage, low-tech industries on which China built its economic ascent over the past 30 years. But as workers such as Wei know better than anyone, 2008 is the year that that part of China’s miracle has come to an end.
It’s been six weeks since He Jun, a Hong Kong-listed company, shuttered two of its biggest factories in China — suddenly and without any warning, former workers say. They were among the latest and largest factory closures in China’s battered low-end industries: toy manufacturers, textile companies and shoe makers most prominent among them. China’s steadily appreciating renminbi currency — which makes Chinese goods more expensive in key exports markets like the U.S. — as well as higher costs embedded in a new labor law enacted last year were already wreaking havoc with companies that survived even in the best of times on the thinnest of profit margins. Now, with a global recession gathering pace, the best of times are gone, and the pain in what had been booming areas in southern China is spreading quickly. Fully half of China’s toy exporters, which sent nearly $8 billion worth of Barbies and Thomas the Tank Engines to export markets in 2007, were driven out of business in the first seven months of this year, Beijing’s General Administration of Customs said in a recent report. In the city of Shenzhen, the other major manufacturing center in Guangdong province, 50,000 people have already lost their jobs this year. And in Beijing last week, Zhang Ping, chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, the nation’s key economic policy-making body, bluntly warned that “excessive production cuts and business closures will cause massive unemployment and that will lead to instability.”
In Dongguan, it already has. Earlier last week, on the evening of November 25, another large toy manufacturer here, Kai Da Manufacturing, laid off more than 600 of its workers because of slowing production. According to participants and eyewitnesses to what followed, a large group of the workers gathered in the front courtyard of the factory demanding to know what compensation they would receive. At first, a company manager told them that anyone with a good work record and less than five years service would receive less than 10,000 RMB—less than $1,500 at today’s exchange rates. Anyone with over seven years on the line and a good record would get 12,300 RMB or about $1,800.